Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Fashionista Fiasco

Carlos reacts to Howie's elimination.

Quickfire Challenge

"Let's blow this joint!" Thank you, Sara, for a great opening line -- "Me likey likey!" You know at this point the contestants have been confined for several weeks with no outside communication and I think it is really starting to show in both their actions and reactions. I liked the grocery aisle challenge. The chefs could end up with a lucky aisle ... or not. However they all had the same limited pantry supplies to work with, and I was a little surprised at how challenging this seemed to be for some of them. I am so glad to see that Brian has finally graduated from seafood...but Spam?! Apologies to all my friends in Hawaii for whom this mystery meat was a staple growing up, but yuck. You did make it look good and I guess this just shows that it really is all about cohesive thought. Sara's dish looked good, but perhaps the pasta was a bit too large. Is it just me, or would anyone else like to see a split screen of Hung's fantasy breakfast next to Frank's mushroom fantasy from Season 2?

Elimination Challenge

Follow the leader. What the &*%$? Seafood sausage again. I cannot believe that Brian would allow CJ to make this dish after he had previously made it not once, but twice for this competition! Even more incredulous is that no one -- fellow chefs nor judges alike -- mentioned it. At the Judges' Table it was as if this were so inspired. Last week CJ really got a free ride when he escaped the curse of the salad, but it looks like the meter on his cab is broken! Ha! Now I respect Tom's opinion, but I know how the game works. You said that you wished some of the chefs had just concentrated on fewer items and made them shine. However the truth is that if that had happened you would probably have said something like "You had all that time and this is all you did?" Let's face it, at a cocktail party people want variety. Poor Howie. Just as he seems to have gotten his sweating and temper under control, his food and inspiration seem to be fading. I saw this coming. As any true Top Chef fan knows, when the cameras begin to show your softer, gentler side, the end must be near! Ha!

To my surprise, all of the chefs seemed to be shocked over the amount of food that was being consumed. Are you kidding? These are fashionistas who haven't eaten a thing since 1989 -- about the same time that Hung first made his salmon mousse! From my experience with parties like this, you should only put foods that can stretch onto the stationary table and pass everything else. Otherwise people will try to make dinner out of it and it can be impossible to keep up. Finally to the judging table. Although this looks like a short process thanks to the joy of editing and limited time to present the segment, it can actually go on for hours. You can see from Hung's defensive stance how exhausting the combativeness between the judges and the contestants can get. I know firsthand how it can really feel -- as if the judges are attacking you over and over until someone is bound to crack.

A really telling sign was Sara's roll of the eyes when Padma asked to see everyone. Believe it or not, I actually agree with Tom that you should never hold back. I learned that lesson the hard way. But I also agree with Howie that you have to maintain your dignity, and all that sparring back and forth can really zap your creative juices. I was happy for Casey and Sara as they have really hung in there (pardon the expression) and presented consistently creative and tasty fare. Best of luck to Howie. Follow your own advice and just stay true to your food. Check out Miami Spice for my latest recipe on this week's webisode. Stay tuned, and Break an Egg!

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Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

Richard Blais explains why Mei Lin won, and why we'll definitely be hearing from Gregory Gourdet soon.

The finale of Top Chef is the one absolute every season. Make the best meal of your life, in a multi-course tasting format for a room of the "who's who" in the culinary industry.

If you get to the finals, it's the type of thing you can prepare for. Every finalist should have a few four to five course menus floating around their heads, including a dessert, and all complete with options and Plan B's transcribed to their moleskins. And although the knowledge of what's coming is helpful, the format does not play to every chef's strengths.

There aren't too many restaurants committed to such meal services. Which means less chefs experienced with how to "write" and execute them. A progressive meal has to have a certain flow about it. And even the stereotypical versions of the "menu degustation" could force a contestant into cooking a dish that's not in their wheelhouse, for instance a straight forward fish course because "it belongs there."

Tonight, Mei Lin has a slight advantage. She cooks in a restaurant every day that showcases a tasting menu. Her food has been the epitome of a modern tasting menu all season. Many previous times, to a fault. Mei's food is small and precise. Beautiful to look at, and intellectually stimulating to discuss. Cold sometimes, every once in a while a shaved radish plated with tweezers heavy. It's not for everyone. It's not for everyday. But it's the type of food that when done well, can win Top Chef. Win James Beard Award noms. Win Best New Chef honors. Win Michelin stars.

Her future could indeed be bright.

What struck me most about Mei's food tonight however, wasn't technique. Technique and presentation often can get in the way of flavor. But tonight Mei delivered a few courses that were deeply satisfying. Soulful, delicious food that also was presented at a high level and cooked with surgeon's precision. That congee though...combined with a simple dessert that took yogurt and granola to another planet, won her the day. Her other two courses were fine, but suffered from the strains of modernity. Overly plated (the duck) and technically overwrought (the fried octopus).

Gregory on the other hand, it's just not his finest work. You can hear it in his voice as he's explaining his food. He's cooking improv, an ode to Mexico. The problem is, this isn't a jam session at a local cantina. This is a studio session where the chefs should be cooking practiced and refined pieces.

His octopus was a highlight and featured the unusual combination of passion fruit and avocado. It was an explosive start. The following two courses unraveled a bit, with the soup being good, but way too unrefined for the moment and technically problematic (the crispy shrimp heads), and the fish course bordering on dessert with the sugary carrot purée.

The mole was authentic and delicious, the rib cooked perfectly, but the dish felt a little incomplete. I believe Gregory had the better ideas, but just needed to think them through a bit more.

His sadness after the fact, I can attest, is profound. Tearful. Absolute emptiness. Close to the feeling of the sudden loss of a loved one. This may shock some of you, because it is indeed just a game. The mere thought of feeling that way over such silliness is well, silly. But not for us. This isn't the Super Bowl where an athlete loses and they can shake it off. Jump in their Bentley and start thinking about next season. There is no next season. There is no guaranteed pay day for the runner-up. The ten wins you had before don't matter. It just ends. Suddenly. And it's rather sad.

The good thing is, this is certainly, 100%, not the last time you will hear from Gregory. I waxed last week about Doug's professionalism, all of which is very true. But Gregory... Gregory is a special talent. His food (and I can say HIS type of food, because it's unique to him), is a study in refined, exotic comfort. What the man can do with a one-pot meal of braised anything, some chilies, sugar, vinegar, herbs, and spices is beyond impressive. Rarely do I taste food that makes me jealous as a cook. Rarely do I taste food that makes me start thinking about a new restaurant concept. The word inspiring in cooking competitions is sort of like the word "love," when it gets used too much, it loses it luster. Gregory's food however. I love it. It is inspiring.

Congrats to Mei and Gregory! Tom was right, I can't wait to one day say I saw you two way back when, in Mexico, in a little kitchen, before the bright lights, fancy kitchens, and big stages that lay ahead for both of you.

See you next season. I hope!

Richard Blais
@RichardBlais - Twitter and Instagram

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